From Denial to Deliverance
Brennan Manning tells a story in his book, “The Ragamuffin Gospel” of entering a 28-day alcohol treatment program and meeting Max. Early on in the program, they had to sit in a circle with a leader and tell the other people in the group about the extent of their drinking. Everyone told their story, except Max. When it came time for Max to talk about his drinking, he said, "I never really drank that much." They said, "Max, you’re in an alcoholic treatment center for a month. You weren’t sipping cokes. Tell us the truth. Admit it." He said, "I’m being honest with you. I’ve never really had all that much to drink." In the center of the circle, they had a speaker phone, and the leader said, "I’m going to call the bar that’s close to your office and we’ll just find out." So they called and asked for the bartender , "Do you know Max?" The bartender said, "Oh, like a brother! He stops in every day after work and has a minimum of six martinis. Man, this guy drinks like a fish! He’s the best customer we have." Everyone looked at Max. Max said, "OK, I’ve had a lot to drink." A little later on in the group, they asked everyone, "Have you ever hurt anybody, a friend or family member, while you were drunk?" Some people described their experiences. But when they got to Max, he said, "I would never, ever hurt anybody. Not when I’m sober, not when I’m drunk. I have 4 lovely children. I’d never hurt them or my wife." The leader said, "You know, Max, we don’t believe you. We’re going to call your wife." As soon as Max’s wife started talking on the speaker phone, Max started breathing heavily. The leader asked Max’s wife, "Has Max ever mistreated you or anyone in the family when he was drunk?" And she said, "Well, yes he has. It happened just this last Christmas Eve. He took our 9-year-old daughter shopping on Christmas Eve, bought her a new pair of shoes. On the way home, our little girl was sitting in the front seat enjoying her new shoes, and Max passed the bar and saw the cars of some of his buddies. He pulled in. It was a cold, wintry day, 12 degrees, with a high wind chill. He made sure all the windows were rolled up snugly, left the car running so that the heater was blowing, said to our daughter, ’I’ll be right back. You just play with your shoes; I’ll be right back.’ He went in the bar and started drinking with his buddies and didn’t come out of the bar until midnight. In that time, the vehicle had shut off and the windows had become all frosted over and locked up tight so she couldn’t get herself out of the car. When the authorities opened up the car and rushed her to the hospital, she was so badly frostbitten that her thumb and forefinger had to be amputated. And her ears were so damaged by the cold that she’ll be deaf for the rest of her life." At that, Max fell off his chair and started convulsing on the ground. He was living in denial and couldn’t bear admitting what he had done or even face it.
Max isn’t alone. In our Scripture today, Jacob lived a life of denial and deception. From the time Jacob was born, he had an internal struggle with his own personal identity. In Israel, every name has a meaning and that meaning became your destiny. Jacob, whose name means ‘cheater’ and ‘deceiver’ lived up to every ounce of his name. He conned his brother Esau to steal his inheritance. He deceived his dad to get his father’s blessing which belonged to Esau because he was born first. And then he deceived his father-in-law to get the majority of his wealth. And in his own mind, he rationalized that he deserved this and everything was OK living in denial of who he really was. But it all caught up with him and Jacob had to run for his life from his brother, his father-in-law but most of all, Jacob ran from himself. It was at the river of Jabbok that Jacob’s past, present and future collided. His brother Esau was bearing down on him with 400 soldiers. Jacob was at a crossroads. He had to make some tough decisions in his life. With his back up against the wall and nowhere to run or hide, Jacob had to deal with his denial of who he really was and what he had done. It wasn’t until God got Jacob all alone that he was able to deal with him and Jacob was confronted with the reality of his own life.
So often we immerse ourselves in crowds and get connected in so many numerous relationships because we don’t want to deal with our true selves. We go from store to store, hobby to hobby; job to job; city to city, seeking cures or anything to distract us from seeing ourselves for who we really are. But it was at the river of Jabbok where Jacob could no longer run from himself and he was forced to wrestle with his own stuff. The river of Jabbok was symbolic because on the other side of the river lay the Promised Land that God promised Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. But Jacob first had to deal with his past and with his present before he could ever move on and receive God’s blessing for his future.
In order to experience true conversion, I believe all of us need a Jabbok experience. God wasn’t going to let Jacob go into a place of promise until Jacob wrestled with who he was on the inside. All of us need to deal with our own denial. We need to wrestle with old habits or any form of destructive behavior that separates us from God and others. Most psychologists say that denial is the biggest barrier to emotional health. God will not take us into a new place of promise until we deal with our old baggage. Until we wrestle with that, we will continue to live in denial. You can’t fix what you don’t face. Until we face the fact that we are broken and our lives are in chaos, God can’t fix and change us into new beings.
Yet most of us never choose to have a Jabbock experience. The problem is that we resist change, even if it’s for the best. You will remain the same until the pain of remaining the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. Yes, some people change when they see the light but most others change only when they feel the heat. And Jacob was feeling the heat. He became desperate and knew he had to do something. God began to use that to do a great work in Jacob’s life. But that’s not all God used.
God uses three instruments in our lives to move us from denial to deliverance. The first is a personal crisis which causes us to re-evaluate our life. Your life isn’t over, but you begin to feel the pain of your sin a little and to see the errors of your ways. Yet, the truth is that a personal crisis usually does not get us to change our ways completely. Often the personal crisis just leads us down the road to what psychologists call minimization, where we say, “I can handle this... It’s not really a problem... I don’t need any help... I don’t need counseling... I can quit any time... I can work it out on my own...” But we can’t handle it and we can’t quit. We have a problem.
The second thing God uses to break down our denial is a confrontation from a friend. God often uses a friend to tell us the truth about our problem, like Nathan in King David’s life when he confronted him about Bathsheba. Psychologists call this an “intervention”, going to a person and attempting to stop their behavior. That’s what Nathan did, lovingly and caringly “speak the truth in love.” Galatians 6:1 says, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” For Jacob, it was a little more direct. He overheard Laban’s son complaining about what Jacob had done and he was confronted by what he had done. There comes a time when it takes confrontation to help a person.
The third thing that God uses to move us from denial to deliverance is a looming catastrophe. For Jacob, this was his brother and 400 soldiers closing in on him. When a personal crisis and confrontation don’t work, God usually lets sin run its course. A catastrophe is when the bottom falls out of your life and you have nowhere to turn except to God for help. Alcoholics Anonymous calls this “hitting rock bottom.” You’re at the end of your rope, the pain of your ways is too great and you are about to lose it all or you have lost it all. It’s then that you must finally relent and admit you have a problem. Sometimes the only thing that gets us to admit we need help is to run out of rope. Matthew 5:3 in the Message translation says, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God.”
It’s in that moment that Jacob wrestled with God and who he really was and what he had done. It is a painful experience. Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich in their book, “The Critical Journey” call this face to face meeting with God, “The Wall.” Others have called it the “dark night of the soul.” This is a time when we are confronted with who we are and what we have done and are forced to wrestle with whether we are willing to surrender to God and let Him direct our lives. Most of the time, we Christians believe we have given our will over to God but in reality, we haven’t and thus are living in denial. The wall is a time when we are confronted by the disparity between who we are and who God calls us to be, between what we do and who God is calling us to live. We realize we have been living as we want and in our own strengths and will. And so when we encounter God, we see ourselves as we really are and the denial which has filled our lives. This can be a frightening and yet pivotal moment as we feel drawn to surrender, yet still wanting to have control. It is not easy and in fact, may even be the most pain filled experience of our lives as we die to ourselves, only to be reborn in God. It is at this moment that we have to choose to let God be God and to surrender our lives to His will or cotinue living in denial as we are. When we choose God, we are healed spiritually but at the same time, we begin to be healed psychologically. And this is where the soul is healed.
Jacob was desperate and he was determined to experience true conversion in his life. It’s only when we get desperate, when you get to the end of your rope that we then become determined to not let go of God until God reverses things in our lives, no matter how long or painful it might be. It’s at “The Wall” or the “dark night of the soul” that many seek to cling to God as never before. And that’s what Jacob did. Jacob had a bad habit of holding onto things that didn’t belong to him. The same tenacity he used to hold onto his brother’s heel in the womb is what he used to hold onto the presence of God. Sometimes in our lives, our weaknesses can become a source of strength. And Jacob held onto God because he knew his life depended on it.
Conversion is always a struggle and it is painful, both physically and emotionally. But it was in the struggle with God and himself that Jacob realized his brokenness or his dependence on God. God knocked his hip out of socket and gave Jacob a limp to remind him of that. But know that whenever we are seeking conversion, not only is it painful, it is a process. Jacob wrestled with God overnight but every decision, every problem and every opportunity which presented itself to Jacob after that, good or bad, he continued to wrestle with his old ways or the new path upon which God called him. Life transformation didn’t just happen. It was a lifelong process which was challenged time and again in Jacob’s life. But as the months and years go by and he chose God time and again, it got easier. But it was a process, sometimes slow and arduous. So often we bring a fastfood mentality to everything in our lives, even our spiritual life and change. We think it’s going to happen almost instantaneously, but it’s a process.
When was the last time you cried out to God in sheer desperation and determination and said, “God, I can’t, but you can.” When was the last time to grabbed onto God for dear life and didn’t let go until God pulled you through? God has something He wants you to deal with in your life. It’s when we start facing our own denial that deliverance begins. God not only wanted Jacob to deal with his denial, the disconnect between the faith he professed and the life he was living. He wanted to deliver him to the life He had in store for him. But first Jacob had to either deal with who he was and what he had done. Then and only then conversion began to take place.
In verse 27 when God asked, “What is your name?” Jacob had only one answer, his name, which meant: “Cheater, manipulator, liar, deceiver, broken.” God said, “Okay, now you finally got it.” And then God said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome." It was in that moment that God not only gave him a new name but he gave him a new life and a new future. He went from Jacob; one who deceives to Israel, one who struggles with God and overcomes.
What is your name? God wants to give you a new name, a new nature, a new beginning, a new life and a new hope-filled future. But to do that, you have to deal with your denial. You have to claim your brokenness, get real with yourself before you can ever become a new person in Jesus Christ. Many of us have been living in denial, in the discord between what our lives are and what God is calling us to be. Some of you, like Jacob, are at a crossroads, and you have to make some radical changes in your life or else. What is it that you’re wrestling with? What area or issue in your life have you put so far in the back in your mind or have buried so deep in your heart because when you think about it, it is painful? I want you to bow your head and think about that one thing that you know deep in your heart God wants you to deal with. That’s the place that God wants to convert. Even though it’s painful, you can’t fix it unless you face it. Then and only then will you be healed and experience true conversion and freedom. But because he did, Jacob received deliverance. And when you do through the power, healing and help of God, you will be called Israel for you will have wrestled and overcome.